Buying a used car parp-if you do it with care

Used cars have become a $21 billion-a-year business in the United States, bringing both deals and dangers to consumers. With new- car prices rising with the tide of inflation, there's a new luster and appeal to used cars. However, shoppers should realize they're in "buyer beware" territory when scouting for used transportation.

The image of the shifty used-car salesman is as overblown as most other stereotypes. Nonetheless, a car is a major investment and prudence demands caution before one is committed to the burden of monthly car payments. Statistics show that auto expenses, pushed along by soaring inflation, fuel prices, and insurance premiums, now rank third behind food and housing costs in the family budget.

New-car prices have climbed 70 percent over the past 10 years. So a clean, well-maintained used car may be a better bargain -- if you know how to shop, what to look for, and what questions to ask. If you're timid, you may unknowingly pluck yourself a lemon, a used one at that.

The key is to be sure you know what you're getting. You may be playing "roadway roulette" if you buy a pre-owned car without knowing its history. "Before you buy a used car, test drive it," urges Vincent Wasik, executive vice-president of the Rent-A-Car Division of Hertz Corporation.

"Some buyers feel they can't really ask for a test drive. That's like buying a house before checking what it's like inside, he says. The second crucial step to buying a used car is to insist upon seeing its maintenance records, if available. "That's you best guideline, so demand it," Mr. Wasik says.

If the dealer or seller hesitates or there are no records, then test-drive the car with your own mechanic. "If a used-car dealer doesn't allow you to do that or to bring a mechanic on the lot, I'd be very suspicious of that particular car -- and also of that dealer," he adds.

His company, which claims to be the world's largest seller of used cars, got into that business modestly in San Francisco in late 1969. Now also the world's largest car rental and leasing company, Hertz expects to sell about 50,000 used cars this year, up from 40,000 last year and close to double what it sold two years ago.

A used car's history is its pedigree. Without investigating carefully, you may take home a car that has passed through wholesalers, auctions, and dealers and lost its identity along the way. New paint and other cosmetic touches may cover up a former taxi, police cruiser, or other hard-driven vehicle.

To avoid that trap, here are some tips on how to buy a used car:

* Insist on knowing the auto's damage repair history and service record or ask for the name of the previous owner and talk to him. "A car's future performance depends on its past," Mr. Wasik notes.

* Don't buy a car that has been in a major accident. Check for fractures or bent frame. Tire wear, alignment, and steering are clues. So are the telltale paint in wheel walls, hinges, headlights, or trim.

* Inspect the trunk, lifting the mat to look for fresh welding that may be evidence of major repair work.

* Wet the tires and drive several yards in a straight line. The tracks should show only two tires; if all four show, it may mean the car's frame has been bent or the rear suspension is out of alignment.

* Push down on each fender, front and rear and release quickly. If there's more than one bounce, shock absorbers may be worn.

* Look closely under the hood for frayed wiring, signs of fire on the hood insulation, and oil leaks.

* Check the depth of tire tread and tread on accelerator and brake pedals. Worn tread is an indicator of wear and tear on the auto.

* Inspect the interior, including the glove box, and under the dash for water stains suggesting a leak -- may even that the car has been in a flood.

* Test-drive through traffic, freeway, hills, sharp turns, rough road, and other conditions. Check for rattles, engine hesitation, smooth braking, "play" in the steering wheel, exhaust emission.

* After you own inspection, have a professional diagnosis by a mechanic you trust.

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